Click to enlargeJohn Henry (trombone quartet)

This piece is based on an American folk song depicting a legend that is likely based on an actual event which occurred in the 19th century in the southern Appalachians. A railroad worker, born a slave but freed at the end of the American Civil War, and armed only with a steel face-drilling bit and a hammer (or two hammers), entered into a speed drilling contest with a steam-powered face drilling machine.

Legend has it that John Henry beat the steam drill but then died from the effort.

This piece depicts the following words from the song:

+ + +

When John Henry was a little baby
Sittin' on his daddy's knee,
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel and said,
"This hammer's gonna be the death of me, Lawd, Lawd."
"This hammer's gonna be the death of me."

Big John Henry went down to the tunnel,
Steam hammer by his side.
He said, "Before I would let this ol' steam hammer get me down"
"You know Id lay down this hammer and Id die, Lawd, Lawd."
"Id lay down this hammer and Id die."

Then follows several stanzas depicting the drilling contest, and finally,

John Henry turned to the straw boss.
He said, "Lawd knows how very hard I tried."
"I done my best but that hammer is fast."
"Please gimme a cool glass of water 'fore I die, Lawd, Lawd."
"A tall cool glass of water 'fore I die."

+ + +

This piece is intended to be performed as a musical drama, with the part of John Henry played by the bass trombonist. The parts are intended to be easily memorized.

The first two stanzas are played in a slow swing style. Then commences the contest. The steam drill, played by the upper three voices, begins slowly. John Henry laughs derisively and begins to drill (playing the melody).

As the tempo increases stanza by stanza, John Henry works increasingly hard to stay with the steam drill, finally collapsing to his knees from exhaustion.

Panting, he watches the steam drill accelerate out of control and finally break down. At this, he pumps his tired fist in the air, slowly plays the final line, and then dies.

The other three players then play the opening and closing lines of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

This piece was written for a high school trombone quartet that happens to have all four instruments available. If this is not the case, it is easy enough to substitute a trumpet, cornet, or flugel horn for the Bb soprano, a tuba for the bass, or a euphonium for either tenor or bass. Substitute parts are provided to allow the Eb alto part to be played not only on alto trombone or alto horn, but on trumpet, cornet, flugel horn, or F horn as well.

The midi rendering from the composer program has three inexplicable slowdowns that no amount of effort has yet successfully corrected. We hope to have a recording and/or video of an actual performance available soon.

MP3 sound sample: entire piece (synthesizer/midi).



JOHN HENRY an American folk song arranged by Tom Kirkland for trombone quartet consisting of one Bb soprano, one Eb alto, one tenor and one bass, plus alternate parts, comes in a pdf file of 265K, with a five-page score, five two-page parts, one three-page part and a license page, nineteen pages in all. Performance time should be about 3:20.


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Last update: 8 February 2017